Walter Goehr, the father of
composer Alexander Goehr, was busily engaged in providing
music for Berlin Radio in the Weimar Republic. During the
1920s he had studied with Schoenberg and Krenek.
Malpopita was the second of Goehr's radio operas -
opera for a new medium. Here it is revived from the piano
score and given new instrumentation by Andrew Hannan.
The premiere of Malpopita took
place in Berlin on 29 April 1931 when the conductor was
none other than Erich Kleiber. The next year Goehr, with
his wife the pianist Laelia Rivlin, left to take up a position
in London with the Columbia Gramophone Company. He was
soon to become its musical director. After the second world
war he had a similar position with the American Concert
Hall label. He toured widely throughout Europe and made
many recordings. He was said to be most proud of his world
premiere recording of Bizet's symphony in C. Extremely
active in broadcasting, during the war he was famed, under
the pseudonym George Walter, for his radio series beamed
to occupied Europe. After the war his conducting of a wide
range of music continued including revivals of Monteverdi's Vespers and Incoronazione
di Poppea. He also presided over broadcasts of the
Brecht-Weill Berliner Requiem, Britten's Serenade,
Tippett's Child of Our Time and Concerto for
Double String Orchestra, Messiaen's Turangalila and
Seiber's Ulysses. In film music he may be best known
for his score for David Lean's Great Expectations (1946).
Phenomenally energetic and driven, he died 'in harness'
in the cloak-room of Sheffield Town Hall after a performance
of Handel's Messiah.
Goehr's musical language in Malpopita is
at times redolent of Weill as in the accordion contribution
to Gestrandet (tr. 11). The factory scenes at the
start (tr. 1 and 2) have the stamp, thunder and iterative
regularity of great machines. The thunder and ring of metal
is the signature and is bound to make us think of Mossolov
and of Fritz Lang's humanity-servitude foundry scenes in
the film Metropolis. It's a style that returns in
tr. 14 (Oil Oil Oil). The sleazy-romantic bier-keller
culture can be heard in tr. 4. The opera mixes speech and
singing - mostly singing and even the spoken sections have
a sung effect. There is nice use made of spatial effects
in tr. 10 for the wreck of the Esperanza. The female
chorus in Das Dicke Ende even gives us a Honolulu
sway - a sort of Honoluluation - alongside the mechanistic
roll-call stuff which finally grinds down even Adam.
The plot is as follows: Adam
has been in the drudgery of factory work for ten years.
He has had enough, picks up his cards and takes to the
open road. He fetches up at a port and is signed on
for a voyage on a yacht significantly called ‘Esperanza’.
He and the other crewmen hymn the paradise of the South
Sea island of Malpopita. Adam finds rapturous love with
Evelyne. It becomes apparent that the boat is engaged in
smuggling and they are pursued by government vessels. The
yacht runs aground on the reefs of Malpopita. The island
is the paradise ideal of liberation and freedom. The island
idyll is short-lived as an exploratory team disappear and
as Richard decides he wants Adam got rid of so he can take
Evelyne for himself. The crew find oil. Despite Adam's
warnings that exploiting oil will bring disaster the rest
including Evelyne now move into oil extraction and processing.
The great cycle turns again and the music of the opening
scenes returns as the simple society fades before the glories
of factory servitude and wage packets. All hope is gone.
Even Adam returns to the pay packet roll-call and his number
937. Remind you of 1984?
Malpopita is a compact work lasting 66 minutes here
presented in fifteen separately tracked scenes. The remaining
10 minutes is taken up by the final track comprising a
Deutschland Radio Kultur feature on Goehr and the Malpopita-Project.
It is in German and there is no translation.
The set is well documented
although the slender font, small print and design background
make legibility difficult.
Design issues aside this is
a well presented set packaged in a slip case for the standard
jewel box and the dumpy booklet.
A pleasure to make the acquaintance
of Goehr's tangy satirical radio fable. I would like to
hear more of Goehr’s music. You will too.
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